Remembering Richard Attenborough

A tribute to the life and career of the great actor and director Richard Attenborough, who was Chairman of the BFI from 1981 to 1992.

David Robinson
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Richard Attenborough and cast on location for Gandhi (1982)

Richard Attenborough and cast on location for Gandhi (1982)

Richard Attenborough never deviated from his childhood and adolescent formation in a remarkable family. His father, Frederick Levi Attenborough, the son of the village baker of Stapleford, Nottinghamshire, progressed from elementary school teaching to become a scholar and then a fellow of Emmanuel College Cambridge; and from 1932 until his retirement in 1951 was principal of University College, Leicester, which he piloted to full university status.

Frederick’s greatest influence was his schoolteacher Samuel Clegg, whose daughter Mary became Frederick’s wife and the mother of Richard and his younger brothers David and John (1928-2012). The boys remembered a house full of activity and laughter, while at the same time, “Mary and the Governor felt unquestionably that in order to enjoy living to the full, you simply had to be conscious of others and their quality of life. It followed that you should be prepared to make some sort of sacrifice … wherever it was possible to help”.

On their seaside holidays the Attenboroughs took with them boys from depressed Leicester housing estates who would never otherwise have seen the sea. Mr and Mrs Attenborough chaired committees to care for child refugees from the Spanish civil war and Nazi Germany, and took into the family two Jewish refugee children who remained as the boys’ adopted sisters for eight years. Richard later said: “Their particular decision, not merely paying lip service but taking positive, responsible action to help other human beings, made a profound impression on me. It has, I suppose, affected my life and my attitudes ever since.”

Richard Attenborough, aged 24

Richard Attenborough, aged 24
Credit: Davis Boulton

As the only member of the family who did not go to university, Richard never lost a lingering sense of guilt, and a wholly unjustified sense of inadequate education. But performing was in his nature, and from school shows he went on to work with the Leicester Little Theatre, an amateur group of which his mother was president. Reluctantly recognising Richard’s lack of application at Wyggeston Grammar School, his father said he might go to RADA on condition he could win a scholarship. He did: the coveted Leverhulme Scholarship was RADA’s only competitive award.

He joined RADA in 1940, and from then on success was unstoppable. In his first summer vacation he worked professionally at the Intimate Theatre, Palmer’s Green. Seeing his performance in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, the agent Al Parker (a former Hollywood director who had worked with Douglas Fairbanks) took him on as a client, and got him his first brief but telling film role in In Which We Serve (1942). Meanwhile he won the Bancroft Silver Medal at RADA, and received good notices for his first West End role in Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing. At 19 he was a West End actor in demand, and already a public figure, on call for such social duties as judging beauty contests. He had also fallen in love with a fellow RADA student, Sheila Sim, whom he was to marry on 21 January 1945. The marriage was to last to the end.

Still seven months short of his 20th birthday, his performance on stage as Pinkie in Brighton Rock eclipsed his veteran fellow cast members, Harcourt Williams and Hermione Baddeley, and made him a national star. The critic James Agate, terror of the English theatre, marched in on him to bark, “Young man I never make a practice of coming round to actors’ dressing rooms. I consider you are in danger of becoming a great actor. I therefore never wish to see you again.” The run of Brighton Rock ended prematurely when Richard was conscripted into the Royal Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot but was seconded to the RAF Film Unit. This gave him the opportunity to work in Humphrey Jennings’ cutting room and to act alongside Edward G. Robinson in Journey Together (1945), directed by John Boulting, who, he recalled, taught him more about film acting than any other director.

Brighton Rock (1947)

Brighton Rock (1947)

On demobilisation, he looked for plays in which he and Sheila could work as a stage couple. After a run of 504 performances in To Dorothy a Son, in 1952 they opened in The Mousetrap, and stayed with the play for two years. Richard’s 10 per cent share in the longest-running play in history was later sold back to help finance Gandhi (1982). He made two more stage appearances with Sheila, in Double Image – the last production at the historic St James’ Theatre – and in Benn Levy’s The Rape of the Belt. The play closed in late 1958, and Attenborough never appeared on stage again, though one suspected there was sometimes a nostalgic yearning. At 80 he said wistfully: “My son Michael has taken over direction of the Almeida Theatre – maybe he’ll offer me a chance one day.”

He had meanwhile made a score of films, but the British cinema of the 1950s hardly deserved him. True, his first film under a contract with the Boulting Brothers was an adaptation of Brighton Rock (1947), which has left a precious record of his performance as Pinkie, but the Boultings’ adaptation of Warren Chetham-Strode’s play The Guinea Pig, required him, already 25 and with receding hair, to play a 15-year-old schoolboy – with Sheila as his house-mistress. Richard recalled: “I was almost a figure of derision for the awful pictures I did and my type-casting image and so on.”

The Boultings helped restore things, when they hit a highpoint of their careers with a run of satirical comedies about British institutions. Attenborough was a barrack-room lawyer and scrounger in Private’s Progress (1956), a sharp barrister in Brothers in Law (1957) and a munitions manufacturer supplying arms to the Middle East in I’m All Right Jack (1959).

10 Rillington Place (1970)

10 Rillington Place (1970)

He had now determined that he was destined to be an actor-manager. He formed a friendship and partnership, Beaver Films, with the writer Bryan Forbes, and secured the £100,000 budget for The Angry Silence (1960) from British Lion, even though the company felt, mistakenly as events proved, that the ostracism of a factory worker by his mates was not a commercial subject. Attenborough and Forbes had also been instrumental in establishing an independent distribution company, Allied Film Makers. Beaver enjoyed a run of successes, all directed by Forbes, with Whistle Down the Wind (1961), The L-Shaped Room (1962) and Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), which gave Attenborough an award-winning role which he regarded as one of the most satisfying of his career.

Already he was committed to Gandhi, which was destined to be the central event of his career. From now on he recklessly committed his personal funds to developing the project, and consequently sought lucrative acting work, if necessary in Hollywood. The work was not unrewarding. He upstaged Peter Sellers in The Dock Brief (1962), was masterly in Guns at Batasi (1964), established a huge personal sympathy with Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963) and The Sand Pebbles (1966), worked with James Stewart in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), danced and sang in Dr Dolittle (1967), and knocked John Wayne out in Brannigan (1975). In India he played a scheming colonialist general in The Chess Players (1977) under the direction of Satyajit Ray, whom he revered. He also played one of his finest though most odious characters as Reginald Christie in Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1970). He did not relish the role but “felt that steeping myself in this particular character, however unpleasant, would be worthwhile if, as a result, people were persuaded that hanging was not only barbarous but could cause irretrievable miscarriages of justice”.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Attenborough’s 1969 debut as director appears to have been an exception to the usual careful plotting of his career. Oh! What a Lovely War had started out as a short radio feature, then been developed into a political-satirical musical for Theatre Workshop, with the First World War seen through the eyes and songs of a pierrot troupe. The writer Len Deighton had scripted a film version, set on Brighton Pier, in collaboration with John Mills, who surprised Attenborough by asking if he would care to direct it. He was persuaded, agreed to co-produce it, and won backing from Paramount on the strength of a rash promise to secure six major British stars – which he swiftly fulfilled: it was not easy to say no to Richard. This was to be his most evidently inventive film: “I tried things which if I had been more experienced I would not have risked … and insisted on trying things that I was told wouldn’t work and had never been done”.

A career as a director was now inevitable. His second film, Young Winston (1972), was a critical and commercial success, but not a wholly fulfilling experience for Attenborough, who was obliged to cede final control to Carl Foreman as producer, writer and first conceiver of the project for which he had personally obtained rights from Churchill many years before. Now he was improbably propositioned by Joe Levine, the last of the old rags-to-riches Hollywood moguls, who had the idea for A Bridge Too Far (1977), a military epic about General Montgomery’s doomed attempt to establish a bridgehead behind German lines in Holland in 1944. This was Attenborough’s first collaboration with the American writer William Goldman; and somehow the two succeeded in formulating a comparatively coherent narrative out of the strategical complexities of Cornelius Ryan’s book. With the aid of a martinet first assistant, David Tomblin, who was to become a regular collaborator whenever there were vast crowd scenes, Attenborough coped with the hazards of armies, locations, weather and an all-star cast. A second production for Levine was by contrast Attenborough’s most confined production, the three-hander Magic (1978), again written by Goldman and with Anthony Hopkins, then fairly new to films but later to be a favourite Attenborough actor, as a ventriloquist possessed by his malevolent dummy.

Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi (1982)

Attenborough’s dedication to Gandhi dated from 1962, when he met Motilal Kothari – a devotee of the Mahatma, with a mission to using film to teach people about Gandhi’s life and work – and read Louis Fischer’s classic biography. Despite the friendship and encouragement of Lord Mountbatten, Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi however, he faced two decades of battle to find means to realise it. His closest friends did not believe in the project. Joe Levine supported it to the extent of paying $100,000 for the property. Subsequently (having used this leverage to get Attenborough to direct A Bridge Too Far), he pulled out, demanding two million dollars and 2.5% of the distributors’ gross for return of the rights. The final script was the work of John Briley. Nehru favoured a British classical actor in the role: over the years every major actor, from Alec Guinness and Richard Burton to Dustin Hoffman was considered: Attenborough’s final choice was the unknown Ben Kingsley, whose father was Indian.

Gandhi’s unprecedented Oscar success changed many careers. Attenborough himself was invited to direct a film adaptation of A Chorus Line, which other major directors had already refused as being too rooted in the theatre to transfer to the screen. Attenborough approached the project with enormous enthusiasm for the subject and for the performers, and highly intelligent solutions to the problems of transposition. In the outcome his affection and enthusiasm show, but they were not enough to disarm the critics.

Even before Gandhi he had optioned several scripts on apartheid, a theme which inevitably aroused his passion, but finally found what he was looking for in Donald Woods’ books Biko and Asking for Trouble. Cry Freedom emerges as a dual portrait of Biko and of Woods, as a fifth generation white South African who only as a mature man recognised the racist feelings which had been imbued in him from birth. The production was beset with difficulties, not just from the attacks and plots of the South African government, but also from the factitious and understandably suspicious liberation fighters. “Nobody else I know could have done it,” wrote Woods; “the physical strength and mental stamina needed to initiate, supervise and complete Cry Freedom – these manifold demands were of a scale and intensity few human beings could have coped with and withstood”. For his own part, Attenborough said: “I never want to make the kind of film whose impact ends when the audience leaves the cinema. I always wanted to make films that might change or at least focus people’s views.”

Cry Freedom (1987)

Cry Freedom (1987)

Biography now seemed his special forte, and for his fourth film in the genre he turned to Charles Chaplin, who had been an idol since his father took him to see The Gold Rush (1925) when he was nine. Oona Chaplin, who had steadfastly refused every request – there were hundreds – to make a film about her husband, finally put her faith in Attenborough, with the condition that she should not have script approval. (She died two weeks before shooting began). The film proved ill-starred from the beginning. Universal, with whom he had a three-picture deal, but who had already pulled out of his treasured project for a film on Thomas Paine, put Chaplin in turnaround after months of work and investment. Funding from Carolco, who took over the project, was to prove precarious. Attenborough’s passion for documentary completism in this case proved a hazard, challenging the writers to contain 80 years of Chaplin’s private and creative lives in a feature film. A last-minute rescue effort by William Goldman failed to give real structure to William Boyd’s conscientious script (with uncredited dialogue contributions by Tom Stoppard).

Chaplin had the misfortune to be chosen for the Royal Film performance, so that the film was initially reviewed in Britain, where in 1992 there was still powerful critical prejudice against Chaplin. Reviewers generally marvelled at the performance of Robert Downey Jr – another instance of Attenborough’s casting a relatively unknown for a leading role which many major stars would have coveted. Otherwise critics ignored the sensitive allocation of other roles between stars and debutants, the meticulous recreation of Hollywood’s evolution through the years of Chaplin’s career, and above all the camerawork of the great Sven Nykvist. The American press subsequently echoed the British distaste for the film and its subject, and the film was commercially doomed.

Richard Attenborough directing Robert Downey Jr in Chaplin (1992)

Richard Attenborough directing Robert Downey Jr in Chaplin (1992)

Yet Attenborough was to have one more success, with what was perhaps his most modest and most wholly accomplished film. Shadowlands (1993), adapted by the author William Nicholson from his play, which gone from television to the stage, is the story of the autumnal romance of C.S. Lewis and an American divorcee Joy Graham, and the writer’s coping with the realities of her pain and death. Attenborough considered the playing of Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger “performances as good as any I had ever been connected with”. The film was a particular test of his supreme skill and understanding in directing actors, since the two had directly opposed styles of working – Hopkins preferring intuition to study, while Winger insisted on endless rehearsal. Attenborough solved the problem by often standing in for Hopkins for rehearsal. In the outcome he triumphantly achieved his ideal of seeing “the real processes of that person, not the acting”.

Shadowlands remains perhaps Attenborough’s most perfectly achieved film. His directorial career was to end with a succession of three failures. The energy, the skills, the logistical mastery remained, as did his loyal team of familiars, notably Diana Hawkins, who had arrived as publicist on Gandhi but was now his partner, and subsequently co-chronicler in the 2008 autobiography It’s Entirely Up to You, Darling (2008). In Love and War (1996) was not his own production, but the true story – the frustrated romance of 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway and a 26-year-old nurse on the Austrian-Italian front at the end of the First World War – had some of the elements to which Attenborough had responded in Shadowlands. Attenborough himself liked the story and locations, but felt hopelessly handicapped by the “office block” of script doctors that the producers brought in. “All the best scripts are by a single scriptwriter.”

Grey Owl (1998), again written by William Nicholson, was a promising subject, this time the true story of a noble fraud. Children of Attenborough’s generation were inspired by this magnificent native American, with his precocious environmentalist message, that we are servants of the planet, not its masters. The Attenborough brothers queued to hear him lecture in Leicester in 1936; but were devastated, along with most of the young of Britain, when, on his death in 1938 he was exposed as an imposter, Archie Belaney of Hastings, who had even deceived native Americans with the assumed personality which had brought him fame. Again the film deserved better, though it had had its production misfortunes. Pierce Brosnan subtly captured the ambiguities of the character, but Attenborough admitted that for once his instinct in casting an unknown as the female lead had not succeeded: the enchatning Annie Galipeau could not manage English dialogue.

After an eight-year break, Attenborough, now 85, made his last film, Closing the Ring (2006), starring the 70-year-old Shirley Maclaine and the 78-year-old Christopher Plummer. It had taken long to set up and finance. The story embraced two eras, 50 years apart, which, intentionally or not, coincided chronologically with Attenborough’s dazzling beginning, the war experience, and the final years of his film success. Maclaine, his only choice for the role, played a sour old lady, untouched at the burial of her long-time husband. The story goes back to 1943, to the love of her life, and his death in a plane crash in Ireland. Half a century later two Irishmen excavate the crashed plane, and find the ring which the young pilot wanted to return to his girl-friend. Philip French praised its “warmth and mature insight”: otherwise 21st-century critics and audiences had no time or good words for the bittersweet nostalgia, and the film was rapidly and ignominiously consigned to video – where in the outcome it found some warm words in user reviews. For Attenborough such a reception must have been a deeply painful ending to his film career.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

He had discovered some consolation in going back to acting after a break of 13 years, persuaded by Steven Spielberg to play John Hammond in Jurassic Park (1993) and the sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). His performance as Kris Kringle gave one touch of distinction to the otherwise indifferent 1994 remake of the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street. He was Santa Claus, and though Macys’ had dissociated themselves from the film, Richard led their traditional Christmas Parade through New York.

Attenborough’s life work was not completed. He had dreamed and planned his massive project for a film on Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, for almost as many years as he had struggled to make Gandhi. Trevor Griffiths’ screenplay, These Are the Times, was completed in 1988 and refined through several drafts. In his 80s, Attenborough had no doubt that he had still the health and energy and drive to complete it. But the disappointments of his last three films, taken with his age, frustrated all efforts to raise the $75 million that were then needed. The cinema and the world in which Gandhi and Cry Freedom had a place and an audience had changed. Griffiths’ work has subsequently been adapted for radio and stage.

Attenborough’s last years were not what he had deserved. The greatest sorrow in his seven decades of success had been the death of his mother, killed in a car accident when she was driving home from a charitable committee meeting. But on Boxing Day 2004 his daughter Jane, his granddaughter Lucy and Jane’s mother-in-law were killed in the tsunami in Thailand. The Attenboroughs were devastated, though Richard struggled in the next few years to maintain his public presence. In 2008 however he was incapacitated by a stroke and a serious fall. In 2012 Sheila was taken into Denville Hall, the actors’ home which the Attenboroughs had energetically supported for decades. The following year she was joined there by her husband, confined to a wheelchair since his stroke and with little power to communicate. It was reported that they were in rooms neighbouring that of Gerald Sim, Sheila’s brother, who had played supporting roles in most of Attenborough’s films, as well as being nationally loved as the Rector in To the Manor Born. The family home, Old Friars on Richmond Green, which they had bought in their early acting days, was sold. Richard Attenborough died on 24 August 2014, five days before his 91st birthday.

His memory is complex. He was an actor of range, power, instinct and intelligence who seemed incapable of failure. He was a film director of varied fortunes. He himself was very modest about his own achievements as director. When he declared that E.T. was more deserving of Oscars than Gandhi, he meant it – even if he would have been bitterly disappointed if the Academy voters had shared his view. He was genuinely modest about his work as director. The subject and what he had to communicate were paramount, and the essential subject is most often his own intense feeling for the character. “That’s what I mean when I say sometimes that I’m a boring director. I don’t use film in the way that the great auteurs do. I use film, the camera, to record as effectively and as perceptive as I am able what I want to say through the actors.” He underestimated his gifts which, certainly were often obscured by the oppressive conventions of big budget studio production. His rushes, especially his ‘master shots’ for a scene, could reveal an extraordinary, three dimensional sense of mise-en-scene and mise-en-shot that were generally doomed to be obscured or conventionalised in the editing. These qualities – derived from his theatre experience – are perhaps more evident in his few lesser-budget films.

Richard Attenborough on stage at the National Film Theatre

Richard Attenborough on stage at the National Film Theatre

His skill in directly actors was paramount. He cherished and caressed them, figuratively and literally. He was endlessly patient and encouraging (“Well played, darling!” he would exclaim) and had an endless armory of instinctive psychological tricks to give them the confidence and calm they needed to work at their best. Yet actors were not particularly favoured, in that his whole film unit was equally under this gentle thrall. You knew the moment he appeared on set – as if following the stage direction, “Enter, laughing.” He had marked and knew every last technician – even if they were, sometimes improbably, hailed as “Poppy” or “Darling”. (He admitted that the universal “Darling” was a necessity because, though he never forgot people, he simply couldn’t remember all their names).

The most phenomenal aspect of Attenborough was that the non-stop, seven-decade creative career represented only one sector of his life. He never deviated from his parents’ commitment to public service, to the natural human duty to make life better for others. The list of his roles as President, Chairperson, Chancellor and what-have-you in Who’s Who was formidable: his film colleagues would wryly joke (when he used the pause between setups to sort out BAFTA or the Gandhi Foundation or the Muscular Dystrophy Group or Denville Hall) that he was “Chairman of London”. In anyone else, to accept so many voluntary public roles might seem like a vain and reckless thirst for influence. In Attenborough’s case it was far from that. He accepted the positions thrust upon him not because he sought them, but because quite unselfconsciously he knew that he would be more effective than anyone else, thanks to his experience, his influence, his organisational and diplomatic skills. (Some of his public services were not publicised. He was asked to help Princess Diana with her public speeches, but went on to play a large part in shaping her public image). His ability to compartmentalise and focus his attention, to concentrate totally on every detail of the matter in hand; and then turn to the next task with equal focus was extraordinary. He only tended to get a little behind a day or two before Christmas, when he set himself at the last moment to sign – usually adding a personal note in his exquisite hand-writing – his regular 4,000 Christmas cards.

The Prince of Wales, patron of the British Film Institute, and Sir Richard Attenborough, its chairman, find lots to amuse them as the Prince hands over a Royal Charter during the BFI's 50th anniversary celebratory banquet at Guildhall in London

The Prince of Wales, patron of the British Film Institute, and Sir Richard Attenborough, its chairman, find lots to amuse them as the Prince hands over a Royal Charter during the BFI's 50th anniversary celebratory banquet at Guildhall in London

Inevitably he had surrounded himself with a loyal, dedicated, necessarily super-efficient clerical staff. With every collaborator, at every level he gave – and expected – total loyalty. If he suspected the least divergence from his wishes, he would only say, with the merest hint of histrionic sorrow, “It’s entirely up to you, Darling.”

Predictably, he had a particular concern for those organisations directly linked to his own professional interests. As Chairman of RADA he repaid his old Academy by retrieving its failing finances, and transforming its premises. He was Chairman of Channel 4 in its first inspired days. From 1981 to 1992 he was a very energetic Chairman of the British Film Institute. His years saw the BFI celebrate its 50th anniversary, the creation of the Museum of the Moving Image, the completion of the Paul Getty Conservation Centre and the expansion of the regional film theatre enterprise. He fought to make the holdings of the Institute’s archive more accessible, and opposed elitist attitudes. “If I have done anything in these 10 years or so I hope it has been to guide it to a conscious stature, a position where it is concerned and consulted whenever something important happens in the cinema.”

Attenborough clowned, kissed, hugged, wept at the least notice, “darlinged”, played everyone’s Santa Claus, and was a terrible tease – instantly spotting your most vulnerable spots. All this failed to conceal that he was, finally, a truly great man. More than 30 years ago, reviewing Gandhi, Philip French wrote what now might serve as Attenborough’s best epitaph: “A small, bald, bespectacled figure who has walked with crowds and kept his virtue and talked with kings without losing the common touch … an astute politician with a steely sense of destiny, yet renowned for his modesty and revered by his followers as an almost saintly person”.

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